Breakneck montages, fantasy sequences, freeze-frames: Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated Vice

The title has a double-meaning but I’d suggest a third: watching the film feels like having your head stuck in a…

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As one of the founders of the comedy website Funny or Die, the director Adam McKay helped shepherd to the screen a 2016 version of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal in which Johnny Depp donned a faceful of prosthetics to play the soon-to-be president. That film was peppered with wacky details – Trump picks the 1980s sitcom alien ALF to be his best man when he marries Ivana – and the irreverence continues in McKay’s noisy and overzealous new movie (nominated for eight Oscars) Vice, which happens also to be the origin story of a political bogeyman: in this case, Dick Cheney.

Now it’s Christian Bale’s turn to be rendered unrecognisable by a make-up department (headed by Greg Cannom), which ages him from Cheney’s drunken early-twenties to his mid-seventies. Bale brings to the part some useful echoes of two near-namesake characters from his past: Bateman and Batman, American Psycho and The Dark Knight, amorality combined with a hushed, whispery stillness.

The governing insight of Vice is that Cheney got away with every last power-grabbing violation – against due process, Iraq, the economy and everything else – because he was so patient and nonchalant, his machinations camouflaged by the traditionally ineffectual post of vice-president. Hence the repeated use of fishing imagery, suggesting that all he had to do for power to flow his way was to put the bait on the hook and wait. When 9/11 happened, he was ready. Unfortunately, that occurs more than halfway through the script, so the movie seems to be killing time till then, albeit with a lot of bluster. There are breakneck montages, fantasy sequences, freeze-frames and an incessant voiceover. An hour in, there’s even a dummy ending, the credits rolling to show how Cheney’s life would have panned out had he not been enlisted by the second Bush administration. It’s Baby’s First Scorsese; if you make it through Vice, you may be grown-up enough for Goodfellas, Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Bale, though, is commanding throughout, and never more droll than in those moments when he shows Cheney dealing stoically with his various cardiac arrests. Pausing in the midst of electoral celebrations like a man holding out an upturned palm to check for rain at a garden party, he calmly says: “Sorry, gang. Yep.” That’s heart attack number three.

Even the muffling effect of heavy prosthetics feels apposite to Bale’s performance: he’s an enigma wrapped in rubber. We sense a human being in there somewhere, but while we see gory close-ups of Cheney’s dodgy ticker, the movie admits it can never get to the heart of the man.

McKay first signalled a wish to swap the tomfoolery of Anchorman and Step Brothers for a more mature tenor when he ended his 2010 cop comedy The Other Guys with animated graphics outlining the causes of the economic crisis. From there it was only a small leap to directing The Big Short, which unpicked the sub-prime mortgage racket for audiences who didn’t know they cared. With Vice, he confirms not only that he is an off-puttingly eager-to-please director, but an explainer extraordinaire.

What with this film and Oliver Stone’s W, those who were in the Bush administration must feel flattered by the attention (Whose turn next? Will Rice follow Vice?). Bush Jr himself is expertly captured by a rodent-like Sam Rockwell, far better suited physically to the part than Josh Brolin was in Stone’s film. Amy Adams is under-stretched as Cheney’s wife, Lynne, partly because she has already played a Lady Macbeth figure in The Master, but also because it feels so limiting a template to reach for when portraying an influential woman. Steve Carell is amusingly frazzled as Rumsfeld, failing to grasp the new tone of politics until Cheney explains that a softer touch is required: “We have the radio and the TV doing our yelling for us,” he says in the script’s sharpest line.

These days, everyone is yelling, and that includes the makers of Vice. The title has a double-meaning but I’d suggest a third: watching the film feels like having your head stuck in a… 

Vice (15)
dir: Adam McKay

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 25 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?